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The History of the Automobile: 130 Years in the Making

July 12, 2016

In May 2014, Google presented a new concept: a car without a steering wheel or pedals. By 2020, the company intends to introduce self-driving cars to the public. Car technology has come a long way in the last 130 years. How far? Take a walk through the evolution of cars - the answers may surprise you.

The First Automobile

So who created the first true automobile? The answer is surprisingly elusive. Leonardo da Vinci was creating designs and models for early automobiles back in the 15th century, and there were many after him that attempted designs that used steam, electricity, and gasoline for power. But most sources point to Karl Benz as the inventor of the first practical automobile back in 1885/1886. Powered by an internal-combustion engine and possessing three wheels, the Motorwagen took its first drive in 1885 and is widely recognized as the first car ever made.  His company went on to produce a four-wheeled car in 1893. His partnership with one Bertha Benz resulted in a company that continues to this day. You guessed it: Mercedes Benz.

The First American Car

The history of the first American car has been no less contested. In 1895, George B. Selden was granted a patent as the inventor of the first automobile (though he had yet to actually build one). Though he successfully kept his patent pending for 16 years, most authorities give credit to Charles E. Duryea and J. Frank Duryea as the first successful American creators of a gasoline-powered automobile in 1892/1893. 

Never heard of them?  That’s not surprising. When the history of the American automobile is brought up, most people think immediately of Henry Ford. While not technically the inventor of the first American auto, he was the man responsible for popularizing the machine. Because of Ford, cars became affordable, and not just a luxury for the rich. As the automobile gained popularity, it also gained functionality, and Americans began to see them as a necessary part of their daily lives—a thought that really hasn’t changed over the past century.

The Rise of Auto Insurance

Of course, with more automobiles came more risk, and with it the need to protect both people and property. The first recorded purchase of an automobile policy was in 1897, when Gilbert L. Loomis bought an insurance policy from Travelers Insurance Company. The concept was new enough that automobile insurance as we understand it didn’t quite exist—his policy was technically a horse and carriage policy. But it covered Loomis in case he hurt someone or damaged their property. Travelers decided that they were on to something, and a year later they began to start writing policies for actual car insurance, not just horse and carriage policies. Auto insurance would not become commonplace until 1927, when more states (starting with Connecticut in 1925) began to require that drivers prove some sort of financial responsibility in the event of an auto accident that resulted in injury or property damage.

Car Technology and Safety Improvements

Surprisingly, a lot of the technology in cars that we now consider standard were once nonexistent, or considered optional accessories. Can you imagine driving today’s roads in a car that wasn’t enclosed? What about a vehicle without turn signals, lights, rear-view mirrors, or a speedometer? Early motorists lived dangerously.

In fact, many 1920s automobiles were open models with canvas and isinglass side curtains. When the Hudson Motor Car Company engineered an enclosed two-door sedan that was priced comparably to the older open-air models, enclosed vehicles became the new norm. Windshield wipers weren’t invented until 1903, when a woman named Mary Anderson decided that drivers stopping to manually wipe off their windshields when it rained or snowed was not just time-consuming, but dangerous as well. The concept of the turn signal was invented in 1914, but factory-installed turn signals weren’t available until 1939.

One of the most important safety innovations for the modern automobile came about in 1959, when Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seat belt. While this wasn’t the first patented seat belt (that occurred back in 1885), it was the design that we still use today, consisting of a strap across both the lap and the shoulder. It was an invention that revolutionized auto safety, and it’s likely that Volvo could have netted a fortune on patents. Instead, they gave the patent away, having decided that the safety of countless drivers and passengers was too important to keep to themselves.

A Car in Every Garage

As the world changed, so did the automobile. The years prior to the stock market collapse of 1929 were the heyday of the luxury automobile, of which Rolls-Royce is perhaps the most well-known. The postwar years saw an increased influx of smaller, lighter cars into the United States, and around this time the sports car entered the scene, ushering in an era of cars that existed for fun rather than strict utility. The 1980s saw the advent of the minivan, which sought to improve the lives of busy parents across the country. The 1990s ushered in the era of the sport-utility vehicle (SUV), followed a decade later by the smaller crossover, a response to rising gas prices. Today, manufacturers continue to experiment with ways to improve upon the original auto, from seeking out alternative fuels to finding ways to bring the internet with you on the road. At this rate, who knows that the automobile will look like in twenty years? One thing is for certain: Karl Benz would hardly recognize it.

Protecting What Matters

The automobile has come a long way in the last 130 years, and new innovations are always on the horizon. One thing that hasn’t changed: the need to protect yourself, your passengers, and your vehicle. When you choose auto insurance with Farm Bureau Financial Services, you are choosing a service that offers a range of options to help keep you safe, both on the road and off it. Talk to your agent to learn more